LEE DENSON (By Klaus Kettner and Tony Wilkinson)

Born Jesse Lee Denson, 25 August 1932, Rienzi, Mississippi
Died 6 November 2007, Memphis, Tennessee

Lee Denson (aka Jesse James) is a guy who was there when the rockabilly and rock 'n' roll avalanche started and who made some cracking good records, classic in fact. His patch crissed crossed with many of those whose music is so revered by all of us to this very day. Born Jesse Lee Denson on August 25th, 1932 in Rienzi, Mississippi, he was the eighth (out of a total of ten) from the loins of Jesse James Denson and his wife.

During the depression years, life was not easy in the little Mississippi town and so in December 1932 the Denson family took their car and headed for the nearest big city - Memphis. Just before they reached the old Mississippi bridge the engine of their car, a Buick "Peace Arrow", failed. It was so cold that the mighty Mississippi River had frozen over, something which has not occurred again, and so Jesse Lee´s mother picked him up and carried him whilst dad gathered up the two 2 year old twins and the family walked into Memphis. Lee almost died that day in his mother's arms due to the intense cold. The Densons' finally settled in a housing project at Lauderdale Courts in Memphis. Lee, as he became known, always had his own way of doing things that landed him in trouble several times. For instance, he ran away from home (for the first time) at the age of nine. Hanging around in the streets turned him into a pretty sharp fighter with the end result that he entered a Golden Globe amateur boxing contest in 1952. The same happened to two of his school buddies with whom he knocked around with, namely Johnny & Dorsey Burnette. As a bantam weight boxer, Lee sang songs with his guitar before starting Golden Glove bouts in the arenas of Memphis.

On November 6th 1948 the Presley family left Tupelo and relocated to Memphis where they settled on 370 Washington Street before moving to 572 Poplar Avenue, which was not too far from the Denson home. Jesse Lee´s father, the Reverend Jesse James Denson, ran the Poplar Street Mission which was of the Pentecostal denomination. This was the church that Gladys, Vernon and Elvis Presley attended. The two families became close friends, especially the two mothers who got along very well. Gladys Presley received a lot of welcome advice and care from Mrs. Denson, who was a significant factor in helping the Presleys' obtain a home in the housing project at Lauderdale Courts. They moved into their new apartment, # 328, in September 1949 and lived there to early 1953 before the Presleys' relocated. Lee remembers:

When (brother) Jim and me got out of the backdoor to go to Humes High School one day, we saw Gladys and this young skinny guy who was taller than her. It was Elvis. We had not met him before but knew Gladys as she was around the mission and the house quite often. But the strange thing to see was that Elvis had his head on his mothers shoulder while walking hand in hand to the school. A couple of days later my mother said to me in the kitchen "Jesse Lee Gladys has begged me if you would show Elvis how to play the guitar". I said "Mama, I'm not teaching that little chicken nothing, he's so fragile and so afraid of everything: If I would start to teach him how to sing and play, the other kids would tease me. It´s hard enough already, but after that I would be in a fight every day". My Mother did not accept that and looked right into my eyes and told me: "Whatsoever you do, Jesse Lee, to these the least of my brothers that you will do on to me, and that's exactly what Jesus said". That really got me and I replied "Okay mama send him over". That afternoon I started teaching Elvis. He was 13 years old and he was slow, but he was better than most people thought. That's how it begun. We then got to his place, or in the basement to practice because there was a nice echo there. We lived there for about four years with the Presleys'. This building still stands, but the neighbourhood has deteriorated.

Over the next two or three years Lee gave Elvis, who was about two years younger, informal guitar lessons. He also introduced him to some of his friends, like the Burnettes and brother Jimmy, but Elvis does not seem to have made a lasting impression on these guys at that time. Lee later liked what Elvis recorded but said: "I know by my heart that Bill Haley & The Comets started that all and to me he was the King. Elvis had all the breaks in the world because of his manager (Colonel Tom Parker)."

I got into music when I was really small. My father played guitar in his mission but couldn't tune the guitar which I could do already at the age of 6. That's when it started for me. I thought it´s better to sing and play than to get into more trouble as some of my friends out on the streets did. In my early days, I was country. I liked to sing smooth like Eddy Arnold. In 1953 Lee moved to Key West, Florida where he worked as a bellboy during the days. However at nights, he was singing in local clubs, eventually ending up in a bar called Sloppy Joe's which was a regular hang out for Ernest Hemingway. While living on the Florida Keys, Lee married and the couple had a son, Jesse James Denson, in 1955.

As the Florida islands only had limited openings for a young eager musician, he often went out on tours all over the USA. In mid 1956 he saw his old school buddies Johnny and Dorsey Burnette on the television show The Ted Mack Amateur Hour, which they won three times, plus securing a national tour with the programme as well as a recording contract with Coral Records. Lee thought that he could easily replicate this and called the brothers for advice with the end result that he moved to New York where he stayed for eight months. He also gained an appearance on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour where he came out the clear winner. Brother Jimmy was with him by now and it was he who took over promotion. Jimmy contacted people at RCA and got them to watch Lee on the show. Eventually Lee gained a recording contract with the Vik label, which was an RCA subsidiary company, and so he started searching for new material to record.

Whilst on tour on in California he met Ray Stanley who had connections with Eddie Cochran and his manager Jerry Capehart. On April 4th 1956 Jerry Capehart went to the Goldstar Studio to cut a demo of a song called "Heart Of A Fool" with The Cochran Brothers, Eddie and Hank. While Jerry Capehart handles the vocal, instrumentally Eddie gives one of his finest performances on record by providing devastating rockabilly guitar accompaniment. By the time they met up with Lee, Jerry, Eddie and Hank had not done anything with the song and so they gave their new buddy the chance to take the song to New York for his upcoming session.

On December 12th 1956 Lee went into the RCA's New York studio to cut his first four songs. He was accompanied by in the studio by top session men such as Panama Francis and Sam "The Man" Taylor. The output was "Heart Of A Fool" coupled with Lee´s own composition "The Pied Piper" which was the plug side. VIK´s press office issued the following release: This rugged, earthy singer with a rough-and-ready beat has a style which he calls a "tremolo yodel", adapted to the rhythm so popular today. He tells of the "Pied Piper" who charms all the "chicks" with his songs. Lee´s serenading rings out strong and true".

The RCA distributor arranged for three appearances by Lee on Dick Clark's Philadelphia based regional "Bandstand" television show - it did not become "American Bandstand" until August 1957 when the show went national. However this promotion failed to make the record a hit. Two other songs recorded at the same session, "Love Twister" and "It Took Too Long", remained unissued. Lee returned to California in May 1957 and rekindled his connections with Eddie Cochran and Ray Stanley. Whilst Lee stayed with his wife and son, Jerry Capehart got Jimmy an apartment on the third floor at 8608 Holloway Drive and which just happened to be next door to another of his then protégées, singers and composers Johnny Burnette and his brother Dorsey. Also living in the same apartment at the time was another Jerry Capehart artist, John Ashley, the movie actor and singer. Ashley frequently called upon Jimmy Denson's services to get the "mean-assed Dorsey Burnette" off of his back as Jimmy knew how to handle Dorsey from their earlier boxing days back in Memphis. The same building also housed other then young hopefuls such as actor (and occasional singer) Vince Edwards who later became famous as television's "Ben Casey". Eddie Cochran often dropped by, using the place as a hang out to party and generally chill out.

Ray Stanley believed in the talents of Lee and duly arranged a session for him at the Goldstar Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. As Lee usually played solo or utlised the services of local bands such as The 3 Hearts, he did not carry regular musicians which meant he did not have a band to record with. Accordingly, Ray arranged some of his musician friends to play on the session. Eddie Cochran was on lead guitar along with Eddie's bass player Connie "Guybo" Smith and Jerry Capehart who banged away on some cardboard boxes to fill in for the drums. It took the group an hour, at a cost of $10 plus $2 for the tape, to record the songs. One was the ballad "Climb Love Mountain" with another being "New Shoes", a Ray Stanley rockin' composition which was laid down in a style not dissimilar to that of Gene Vincent. There have been rumours that two more songs were recorded at the session but confirmation has stubbornly failed to materialise. Lee took the two aforementioned songs back to New York for his next release on Vik Records in July 1957. Again, the second release failed to chart with the result that Vik did not renew Lee's contract. Denson decided to return to California but on route he dropped in to Memphis to visit his parents. This stop over has lead to further rumours that he recorded several acoustic demos for Lester Bihari´s Meteor label but Lee cannot recall this happening. Being ever restless, Lee and brother Jimmy moved on back to Los Angeles where he secured a recording contract with Kent Records in February 1958. The first session for his new label was on March 3rd 1958 and produced the two self composed numbers "High School Hop" and "Devil Doll". With Jimmy handling the promotion, Lee obtained plenty of local bookings and magazine write-ups. Whilst Jimmy was not a musician, he was a capable composer with the result that he and Lee started to write songs together.

Come the time for the next Kent recording session, Lee recognised his brother's help and ability by recording some of the songs that they had co-written. Also sensing that a name change might help the next record release, the bothers pooled their christian names together and came up (yes you have guessed it) Jesse James. This release was the legendary slab of blasting rock 'n' roll "The South's Gonna Rise Again" coupled with 'Red Hot Rockin' Blues" which was released as Kent 314. The top side was composed by the two brothers from memories of what they had leant at school. (If only we had such history lessons in Europe to be able to create such sparkling rock 'n' roll). This cult favourite has been reissued several times since the first release, both legally and illegally. The reason for its popularity is not hard to determine, it is classic rock 'n' roll music. Actually when these tracks were laid down, it was a split session with singer Artie Wilson and boy the musicians such as Earl Palmer (who played on many hit recordings by the likes of Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bobby Day and Ritchie Valens) were cooking that day. Wilson's release from this session "Jerry Jerry" and "That's My Baby" (Kent 313) were two Larry Williams styled pounders, again first rate rock 'n' roll. Some of the songs cut by Denson as Jesse James have not been released as they were basically only demo recordings.

In late 1959, Denson pacted with Merri Records and laid down four songs. Two of the titles, "A Tree In The Meadow" and "Twang" were issued in 1960. The first mentioned of these songs became a significant hit several years ago. The other two songs from this session, with an updated sound, were released two years later.

Coming from a very religious family, Lee always kept his faith with God and so it was a natural thing for him to write gospel music. In 1960 he wrote an English version of Avai Maria titled "Miracle Of The Rosary". Denson attempted to get publishers interested in the song but as it was of a religious nature, enthusiasm was not forthcoming.. When Lee heard that Elvis was in Hollywood to film a movie, he visited with him at his Bel Air residence. Knowing that Elvis had retained his passion for gospel music, Denson was determined that Presley should hear this composition. At the house, Denson was warmly welcomed and had the opportunity to perform the song to Elvis and his Memphis Mafia. Lee remembered:

After I finished this little girl stand up and said "It´s the most gorgeous song I ever heard in my life" and it was Priscilla. This was the last time Lee saw Elvis in person. He later received a telephone call from one of Presley's sidekicks who inquired about the publishing for the song. The guy was told that the rights had been assigned to Dorsey Burnette's publishing company. Dorsey later sold his catalogue to Acuff-Rose and where it still resides. Seemingly, nothing was happening with Elvis on the song and so Denson recorded a version for the Enterprise label in the sixties. This is the same Enterprise label for which Detroit rocker Jamie Coe recorded for and is not the same as the Stax subsidiary. Unfortunately from a commercial viewpoint, this release was stillborn.

One of the other artists on the Merri label was Lee's old buddy, Dorsey Burnette who by this time had decided to go into the record production side of the business. Dorsey teamed up with Ricky Nelson´s bass player Joe Osborne and together the pair launched started the Magic Lamp label. Brother Johnny Burnette had one release on the label in 1964 before he was accidentally killed in a boating accident. Joe Osborne run the label and produced several artists including Lee who was signed as a result of his connections with the Burnettes. Two country oriented songs "Sixteen States" and "Mississippi Bridge" were issued but the label did not have a good distribution and so rather quickly it went belly up. Incidentally the backing vocals on these recordings were by Richard and Karen Carpenter who of course went on to secure international success as The Carpenters. A little known fact is that the very first release by The Carpenters was on Magic Lamp Records.

Lee finally tired of the west coast scene and returned to Memphis in 1972 whereupon he signed with Stax Records. One evening that year, Lee got a call from his old school mate Red West who was then based in Nashville. Lee remembers the telephone conversation vividly: 'I have not heard from Red in quite a while. He told me to sit down which I did and he started telling me that day Elvis has recorded my song "The Miracle Of The Rosary" that day. I was glad he told me to sit down. I couldn't believe it after all those years. The version by Elvis has been on several of his albums and I still get royalties from airplay and records. I have been very fortunate and this money helped me doing what I wanted to do.' In recent times, the song has been included on Presley's "Amazing Grace" album and it is still selling to this very day.

Lee has, in subsequent years, recorded and produced four religious albums for his own Eternal Rainbow label and still writes poems in an attempt to show people a way out of the darkness of life. The last release was "God Bless America Again". All of these albums used large orchestras and, indeed, one of them had no less than sixty-three violinists on the recordings. Another personal favourite of Lee's is children's songs and he has been working on the "Legend Of The Snowprince" for many years now. He still maintains his close relationship with brother James "Jimmy" Denson and the two are involved on several projects together.

Jesse Lee Denson remains proud of his rockin' days and when he was close to some of the finest musicians of that era but is also looking forward to the future. Lee: "God took care of me. He helped me to do some of the things I wanted to do. I'm a happy man going from 68 to 69". (This is a quote from year 2000).

Suggested listening:
Hydra BCK 27115 - 'The South's Gonna Rise Again' - 2001

(The above is an adaptation of the liner notes for that CD, written in 2001)

These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
Yahoo Group "Shakin' All Over". For comments or information
please contact Dik de Heer at

-- Return to "This Is My Story" Index --